Posts Tagged ‘Soyuz’

Goodbye, Space Shuttle: Now the Space Race Can Really Begin

21 Jul

NASA’s 135th space shuttle flight ended this morning when Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, marking the close of a 30-year run for NASA’s ambitious, controversial and troubled orbital vehicle.

America’s space programs will continue, but without their flagship space plane — or any manned vehicle, for now. Over the next few years at least, U.S. astronauts will hitch rides to the International Space Station in Russian capsules. Meanwhile, purely robotic systems will take over other space duties.

Listening to some critics, you’d think America had just retreated from space, forever. “We’re basically decimating the NASA human spaceflight program,” former astronaut Jerry Ross told Reuters. “The only thing we’re going to have left in town is the station and it’s a totally different animal from the shuttle.”

Today many observers consider the Shuttle the ultimate expression of American technological prowess, and see its demise as a signal of America’s decline. In one sense, they’re right: With its huge size, distinctive shape and fiery launches, the shuttle has always been an impressive symbol. But as a practical space vehicle, it has long been an overpriced, dangerous compromise.

There’s a reason the Soviets canceled their space shuttle, and that the Chinese have never attempted one. Even without their own shuttles, both nations are now nipping at America’s heels in space. Russia has increasingly reliable rockets and capsules; China began manned spaceflights back in 2003 and is mulling a space station and a moon mission. Both countries are working hard to expand their satellite fleets, though they remain far behind the United States with its roughly 400 spacecraft.

In truth, the shuttle’s retirement could actually make the U.S. space program stronger, by finally allowing the shuttle’s two users — NASA and the Pentagon — to go their separate ways in space, each adopting space vehicles best suited to their respective missions.

“When I hear people say, or listen to media reports, that the final shuttle flight marks the end of U.S. human space flight, I have to say … these folks must be living on another planet,” NASA administrator Charlie Bolden said in a July 1 speech at the National Press Club in Washington.

For NASA, future manned missions will ride in upgraded 1960s-style manned capsules: first Russian models, then potentially American-built ones. Missions that don’t require a human passenger will fall to rockets of various sizes. The military will use many of the same rockets, and could also expand its brand-new fleet of small, robotic space planes.

Together, these vehicles will make space flight cheaper, safer and more flexible than was ever possible with the shuttle.


NASA Considers Space Station Family Portrait

11 Feb

NASA is considering a plan to snap a photo of the International Space Station at its most crowded. The agency hasn’t made a decision yet — but maybe enough public support can convince them to take the most mind-blowing space photo of the Space Shuttle era.

During the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery, planned for late February or early March, the International Space Station will play host to a record number of spacecraft. Five new visitors from space agencies all over the world will be docked at the ISS, making the space station the heaviest and largest it has ever been.

This flight will the the one and only chance to capture this cosmic conference on film, before the shuttle is retired for good.

NASA officials are investigating a scheme in which one of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft would undock from the ISS to take the family portrait.

This historic photo op may require an in-flight game of musical chairs. The most reasonable plan, NASA officials decided in a meeting at Johnson Spaceflight Center, is for the Soyuz to undock, swing around the ISS so that the crew within can snap a photo, and then redock, requiring a dual-docking procedure to fit both the Soyuz and Discovery. Several different flight plans are being considered, and each one would give a slightly different view of the ISS.

The spacecraft that would gather to say cheese would hail from all over the world, including Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle-2, Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle-2 (named Johannes Kepler), the Italian-built Permanent Multipurpose Module (named Leonardo), the ExPrESS Logistics Carrier-4 and the Shuttle Discovery.

The procedure would be inconvenient, taking a total of 15 hours and possibly removing crew members from their posts at important moments. But the resulting photo would be one for the ages, and a fitting farewell to the Shuttle.

This wouldn’t be the first time a Soyuz has played photographer for a space station. In 1995, a Soyuz undocked from the Mir space station to photograph the undocking of the Space Shuttle Atlantis (above).

Image: Nikolai Budarin, Russian Space Research Institute, NASA


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